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Omo River dam threatens traditional farming and culture in Ethiopia

An ancient way of life that sustains 200,000 people will be lost if the Ethiopian Government can find the money to build a big new hydroelectric dam on the Omo River.

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues. 


By Mark Angelo

This past week, I returned from a remarkable trip along the Omo River in the remote south-western region of Ethiopia. Traveling through this amazing country, you quickly realize that many North Americans have a pre-conceived image of Ethiopia; one that’s molded by frequent news stories about drought and hunger along with the crushing poverty that exists in some places.

But while these remain serious issues (particularly in the country’s north), Ethiopia is also a land with an intriguing history, many diverse and unique landscapes, and stunning, centuries-old monuments.

The country’s south-western sector, bisected by the Omo River, is also widely known as one of Africa’s most unique and intact cultural landscapes.

Omo-River-photo-1.jpg

Photo courtesy of Mark Angelo

The various ethnic groups that reside along the Omo were generally shielded from the outside world by rugged mountains and seemingly endless savannah. Their isolation was further extended by Ethiopia’s unique status as one of only two African nations never to be colonized by Europeans.

In the absence of significant external influences, the various tribes of the Omo carried on with their customs and traditions, migrating by season and occasionally fighting with each other.

Yet, while the indigenous groups of the area remain distinct and disparate, they also share a rich, symbolic culture, often expressed through body art and adornment. This is a way of life that has long since vanished from most of the continent, but glimmers of this “historical Africa” are still found here.

 

Omo-River-NGM-photo-by-Randy-Olson.jpg

Africa’s Last Frontier
Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is still a place ruled by ritual and revenge. But change is coming, from upriver
.

Article, photos and more from National Geographic Magazine (March, 2010)

 

To many of the tribes along the lower Omo, livestock is the embodiment of wealth and prestige. Yet their livelihood is dependent on planting crops of sorghum, maize and beans using what’s known as “flood-retreat agriculture.” This type of farming is dependent on the annual flooding cycle which deposits a layer of nutrient-rich silt beside the river, making the land productive for another year.

Tribes such as the Bodi, Karo, Muguji, Mursi and Nyangatom have farmed this way for generations and their culture revolves around the natural pulsations of the Omo.

But unbeknown to many who live here, there is significant change in the wind–and it’s coming from upriver.

The annual rise and fall of the Omo waters is, in effect, the ancient heartbeat of the valley that has dictated the economic and social values of the almost 200,000 tribal members dependent on farming the river’s banks. All this will change dramatically in the coming years due to the construction of the massive Gibe 3 hydroelectric dam, located a few hundred kilometers upriver.

Omo Basin Area map.jpg

Map of Omo Basin courtesy of International Rivers. Download the International Rivers fact sheet about Ethiopia’s proposed Gibe 3 Dam (pdf) 

Once the dam is completed in 2012, the seasonal flows of the river will be dictated by electricity production for distant urban centers and export. Resulting downstream flows will become much more uniform, making flood-retreat agriculture impractical. Water volume is also expected to be permanently reduced due to seepage and evaporation losses from the 150-kilometer [93-mile]-long reservoir.

Understandably, there’s growing concern that, if the dam reigns in the seasonal flooding cycle, the traditional way of life along with the cultural identity of several tribes will be severely impacted. Potential repercussions could range from food shortages to increased episodes of tribal conflict and displacement. There’s also increasing anger over a lack of communication, consultation and mitigation; something that should be addressed to a much greater degree.

This was passionately stated in a poignant interview I did with the chief of the Karo people that’s included in the following video clip:

 

The Ethiopian government is still seeking supporters to finance the final stages of the dam. On an encouraging note, the European Investment Bank withdrew its financial support for the project last month, citing the concerns raised above.

If and when an additional financiers are found, I’m hoping they’ll insist on fully addressing the issues raised by local indigenous cultures as a precondition to any future support. At the very least, I think we owe that to the people of the Omo.

Mark-Angelo.jpg

Mark Angelo is the chair of the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and an internationally acclaimed river conservationist. He has received the Order of Canada, his country’s highest honor, in recognition of his river conservation efforts both at home and abroad. He received the United Nations International Year of Fresh Water Science, Education and Conservation Award, the Order of British Columbia, the National River Conservation Award, and an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University. He is a Fellow International of the Explorers Club. Angelo is the chair and founder of World Rivers Day, an event celebrated across dozens of countries on the last Sunday of each September. He has traveled on and along close to 1,000 rivers around the world over the past 5 decades. He has authored numerous articles and papers about rivers and his expeditions, including the Riverworld presentation launched in concert with National Geographic Online in 2003 and shown to audiences across North America.

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Comments

From Mark Angelo

Another key point to make is the fact that plans to construct this dam have gone forward in the absence of any significant communication, consultation or mitigation efforts relating to indigenous communities.

Most of the tribes along the lower Omo feel as if they’ve been shut out of the process and yet, they’re the ones that will be most impacted.

If the dam continues to move ahead in the absence of significant engagement with indigenous communities, the end result could well be increased hunger, displacement, and tribal conflict over what little productive agricultural land that remains.

From Luel Haile

It is sad news for Ethiopians one big man writes this article!

It seems normal and exciting event when conflict happens among people of the same country, because you are dictating us like this “In the absence of significant external influences, the various tribes of the Omo carried on with their customs and traditions, migrating by season and occasionally fighting with each other.” 

Occasionally fighting is not normal, though. Not only this one EIB withdrawal is good news for you. But We Ethiopians will make it with out any external funds. The worst thing is it will not be finished in 2012, but some time after that.

This is a useless idea. What could be better is to make a public debate with those who support the project, and the government of Ethiopia. And if you can, the whole society. Ethiopia is for all Ethiopians.

Many thanks for reading my comment.

Comments

  1. yayo
    Ethiopia
    January 13, 2013, 7:31 am

    Would you leave us alone, we don’t have time for your aid anymore!

  2. Negusse Mamo
    Ethiopia
    July 13, 2011, 1:32 pm

    Dear Sirs,

    I read your worries regarding the flow of the Omo River and its various ethnic groups who live around it. According to your ideas it seems as if the construction of the dam will affect the indigenous people and disrupt the echology of the nature. But these people who live there since time immemorial are subjected to harsh type of life; such as exposed to Malaria, waterborne diseases, forgotten by the rest of the world. What we rather worring us is how long they continue to survive sawing handful of seeds along the bank of the rivers? Still they need to change and they also should change their life to a better way of living. We’ll help them to change and who said that they must contiunue a bush life? A very good exemple is the test of irrigation south of Ethiopia from the Omo river. They will learn using irrigation thanks to the construction of the dam. We know very well that either Europeans or americans have enough waters, even sometime you correct the flow of your rivers by diverting them according to your plan. Ethiopia who was subjected to a reapted drought cannot always stretch her hand to receive donnations; so let the Ethiopian government and its people be ecouraged to build its dams. The volume of the water level decreased already many years now due to the global climate/global warming/ change which is already because of the industrial nations, which themeselves have already acknowldeged it. Let’s think like the 21st century not backward in the late 1930. Thank you. Negusse.